Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip proceed through the Royal Gallery before the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords, at the Palace of Westminster in London, Britain May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville
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There is a place for class prejudice if it is done properly. Resent privileged Conservatives, for instance, but resent them for the right reason. They are not hostile to poor people. Their sin is more often casualness, a vision of politics as a parlour game to be played with old college friends. If it goes wrong, well, you win some, you lose some. There is no malice here, just the frivolity of people unmarked by life.

David Cameron spent his last parliamentary session as prime minister holding up cat photos and chuckling like a man who had just lost a rugby-club drinking contest, not a referendum on Europe. He then decorated with official honours various losers from the Remain campaign and so many of his own advisers as to make you wonder what, short of inadvertently sitting on the nuclear button, a staffer had to do to not make the cut.

The excuse is that Sir John Major and other prime ministers also looked after their own as they left office. Leaving aside this feeble what-aboutery, they did not hold a referendum on a giant subject and flunk it. If Mr Cameron has trouble understanding the uniqueness of his failure, historians can talk him through it. He need not abase himself in contrition, but voters, especially those likely to lose their jobs in the slowing economy now envisaged by the Bank of England, are entitled to expect some of the decorum that his background is supposed to instil.

The laurelling of his well-paid retinue as though they were the first wave of landing infantry at Juno Beach was only one of three tawdry and recent spectacles. The Labour party nominated Shami Chakrabarti to the House of Lords after the civil-libertarian conducted an “independent” report into anti-Semitism in the party. And the inquiry into child sexual abuse, having already lost two chairs over perceived establishment links, shed a third, Dame Lowell Goddard, soon after it was reported that she had spent 74 days abroad or on holiday in her first year in a job that pays £360,000 plus perks.

In their precise exposure of what is wrong with British public life, these events almost qualify as a civic service. Britain is not corrupt, as such. Laws on bribery and embezzlement are not routinely broken. The country does well in transparency rankings.

But what it lacks in venality, it makes up for in cosiness. Insiders look after each other and mediocrities fail upward, or at least sideways. The elite is only half-porous: it is possible to get in but not to fall out. There are plenty of second acts in these British lives. There is always a commission to chair, a university to head, a seat to take in a second chamber that now has almost 800 members keeping London’s livery tailors in profit. This is public service as a parallel welfare state for good eggs.

Unlike a system of hard corruption, there is no cynicism among the players. They do not think they are getting away with anything. This makes the problem all the more insidious and hard to define let alone fix, until you remember who the prime minister is.

Britain’s institutionalised cliquiness must jar with Theresa May. She shuns the politico-media circuit of mediocrely catered parties and shared holidays. Her advisers lack the ludic streak of the Cameron team, and the ingrained sense of fraternity with other wings of the establishment. Gordon Brown talked a good puritan game as prime minister, but few politicians have cultivated editors and industrialists as assiduously to get and keep the job. Mrs May is the more authentic Roundhead.

She also has an electoral incentive to reform a polity that voters see as a plot against them. Temperament and circumstance equip her to change things.

She can start with the honours. Political advisers have prestige, influence and a multiple of the average national salary. This package does not need padding out with official decorations to make their mothers proud and prime them for the job market. The same is true of civil servants. The reward for their work is near-perfect job security and taxpayer-funded retirement.

If anything does more to make Britain look like a baroque toy town than honours named after a non-existent empire, it is the Lords. Everything from its democratic deficit to its costumed ostentation erects a wall against the public. Defenders talk of its expertise as though expertise were fungible (why should a scientist vote on a welfare bill?) and these awesome minds were not fighting for bench space with partisan hacks and donors. Making the chamber smaller and more legitimate is, thanks to its survival instinct, excruciating work. But fighting corruption, even Britain’s soft and fragrant variety, always is.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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